Has Memorial Day Lost Its Meaning?

Memorial Day has also become the unofficial start of summer in the U.S. as it occurs at the end of May, but that’s not what the holiday was originally created for. It’s the commemoration of those who died while serving in the U.S.’s armed forces. Indeed, over time, Memorial Day has also become a day to remember those who have died, whether they served in the armed forces or not.

Should the U.S. Memorial Day be about picnics, the opening of swimming pools and the first visit to the beach, as well as the lowering of flags to half-staff and parades?

Civil War Origins of Memorial Day

General John A. Logan, the commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (an organization of Union veterans), originally called for Memorial Day to be observed on May 30, 1868, to remember the Union and Confederate soldiers who had died in the Civil War. As of 1971, the holiday has fallen on the last Monday in May, after Congress passed the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act under which four holidays including Memorial Day were moved from fixed dates to a Monday to create a three-day weekend.

John Raughter, communications director for the American Legion, is one who contends that Memorial Day should again be held on May 30, to restore its original significance. A number of countries around the world celebrate similar commemorative holidays on certain dates of historical significance — should the U.S.?

Equivalents to Memorial Day in Other Countries

Remembrance Day is observed in Canada, the U.K., South Africa, Kenya, India, Australia, New Zealand and a number of other countries on November 11. It was at the eleventh hour of November 11, 1918, that the hostilities of World War I officially ended with the signing of the Armistice by the Allies of WWI and Germany. In a number of countries, the tradition is to hold either one or two minutes of silence at 11:00 am. Wreaths, often made of red poppies, are placed on grave sites and memorials to fallen soldiers.

November 11 is also a holiday in the U.S., Veteran’s Day, to honor those who have served in the armed forces. In Belgium, France, Serbia and New Zealand, November 11 is Armistice Day, in commemoration of the signing of the Armistice.

In Israel, Yom Hazikaron is a “Day of Remembrance” that is held on the day before the country’s Independence Day, as a “General Memorial Day for the Heroes of the War of Independence.” Yom Hazikaron is dedicated to commemorating soldiers and, more recently, civilians who have died as as result of political violence or terrorism. It begins with a one-minute siren at 8:00 pm the preceding evening (according to the Hebrew calendar, a day begins a sunset), during which Israelis stop whatever they are doing and observe a moment of silence. A siren is also heard the next day at 11:00 am.

In South Korea, June 6 is celebrated as Memorial Day to honor those who fell in the Korean War and other major wars. At 10:00am, a siren rings all over the country, followed by  silent prayers; a ten-minute silence is observed at a ceremony at the country’s National Cemetery. Since South Korea and North Korea are still at war (and with the latter country having recently been threatening military action), Memorial Day in South Korea has added significance.

Russia observes Victory Day to commemorate the surrender of Nazi Germany to Soviet Union in the Second World War. The holiday was celebrated earlier this month with a huge show of 11,000 troops and 101 military hardware parading in Moscow’s Red Square; 68 fighter jets and helicopters also were displayed. That is, Victory Day emphasizes the current military might of Russia.

China observes Army Day to commemorate the August 1, 1927 Nanchang Uprising in which the Communists fought against the Kuomintang (KMT, or Nationalist Party). The holiday also marks the establishment of the People’s Liberation Army, which is now the largest armed force in the world and whose cyber unit has recently been connected to several hacking attacks on U.S. companies. As in Russia, Army Day involves an elaborate show of China’s current military power with displays of troops and weapons.

What Should Be the Purpose of the U.S.’s Memorial Day?

In the U.S., where ceremonial displays of the armed forces are not as extensive as in Russia and China, it can be argued that the meaning of Memorial Day is enriched by having it include not only ceremonies to honor the dead, but to be a time for life-affirming rituals such as sharing meals together and reveling in the coming of summer.

Another reference to ancient history may be illustrative. During the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.E.) that Athens fought against Sparta, the orphans of those who had died in battle were paraded before citizens at an annual festival, the city’s Dionysia, held in honor of the god Dionysius and in the month of Elaphebolion (the end of March to the beginning of April, roughly). The parading of children who had lost their fathers was a powerful reminder of the costs of the fighting, as well as a way to remind citizens of what they were fighting for. The intent was to remember and to honor and not just on a specific date, but for a long, long time.

Should the U.S. Memorial Day be solely devoted to commemorating fallen soldiers or left as what it has evolved into, a day of remembrance that heralds the beginning of summer?

Photo from Thinkstock


Dawn Love
Dawn Love1 years ago

thanks for the article.

Jim Ven
Jim Ven1 years ago

thanks for the article.

Ei A.
Ei R4 years ago

Many honor the many who have died on this weekend. Not all of us think of it as a day to shop.

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill4 years ago

Ecro E thanks for sharing that church sign.

Catherine O is completely right! It is up to the parents and grandparents.

Lynn Demsky
Lynn D4 years ago

The majority of the people I know just think of it as a fun 3 day weekend and have no idea that it is in "honor of all who gave their all so we could be free". Thanks for article!

Bill and Katie D.

We do think some haven't been taught what it means! We went to the cemeteries with our grandmother's and parent's! We would get the container's ready and go pick real flower's to take, usually Peonies and Iris's what ever else was blooming.! Don't think that happens very much today! Even the cemeteries no some don't have water to use!
Thank You

Ro H.
Ro H4 years ago

It's not just a shopping opportunity? Sale time. What was it originally??

Magdalen B.
Magdalen B4 years ago

Perhaps if Memorial Day were moved to 11th November, the same as it is in allied countries, a new Celebration of Life holiday could be created for the start of Summer.

Marianne Good
Past Member 4 years ago


Grace Adams
Grace Adams4 years ago

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